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Astana Kazakhstan Sunday 10 August 2013

John Lawrie's CANFA tour group arrived safely in this wonderful part of Middle Asia which is lush and green this year; guessing that they have had twice the normal rainfall. This is in stark contrast to the major drought they had last year. The annual average rainfall is 370 mm but lots of snow; one lady telling us up to 2 metres in winter. Astana is an interesting city, lots of open spaces and the most unusual  buildings. It is a relatively new city and although 60 percent are Muslims most people wear western style clothing. It is built on the great steppe plains and surrounding the city is a green belt, constructed of random plantings of trees and shrubs to protect the city from dust storms....which is certainly not a problem this year. Interestingly many people from Germany and USA come to do bird watching, setting up tents in the green belt. We went on a bus trip to Akmol, an ex collective that is run by a company now. They have about 30,000 ha of cropping land as well as chickens. They have about 9 x 12 m Morris air seeders and grow chickpeas, lupins, wheat, barley, safflower and an oilseed we did not recognise but thought to be a false linseed which can handle the drier climate better than other oil seeds. It was explained that after World War 2, the Russians decided to crop all the steppe country.  As the country is natural open plains there was no need for clearing but the nomadic graziers had to be removed. However after 20 to 30 years of ploughing, there was a lot of environmental damage and bad dust storms so they started min tillage with blade ploughs that did not disturb the surface soil.  Now they are going more no till but might still use the blade 1 in 5 years for weed control. There were some weeds surviving herbicide applications but if the blade plough slices off their roots at about 35cm the deeper roots die and the plant above dies by being frozen in winter. They also use a para plough to put fertiliser at depth up to 55 cm.  We saw lots of machinery, grain grading facilities, all different to what we are used to. They also produce 200,000 eggs per day and are in the process of building new poultry sheds to produce 20,000 t meat/year.  They will also make compost from the manure for the crops. They are hoping to reduce costs by recycling the organic wastes. It costs about $100/ha to grow their crops and average 1.2t/ha wheat but this year are expecting 2.5 t/ha as their rainfall has gone from 220 mm to 470mm this year.  We went around the very wet muddy paddocks to have a look at some of the crops, big open plains of crops as far as the eye can see.

After lunch we visited the women's museum and learnt the horrific story of how the wives and families of educated people were sent here from 1938 to 1953. The very cold winters and the isolation meant that it was not necessary to put them behind bars; they could not escape as there was nowhere to go. These prisoners' crime was being related or being friends of academics. If they had a child under 3 years of age they could stay but then they were adopted out, some never to see their parents again. This was seen to be so cruel as this was done by their own country. The Kazakhs felt sorry for them and tried to do what they could but it was impossible to stop the cold (minus 40 C).  After the camp was closed many went home but some just melted into the local community. On the way back we stopped at the most amazing American style shopping centre.  This country is a place of contrasts and very interesting!